Stuck in the counter-cultural cul-de-sac

Written at the start of the 1960s, Revolutionary Road – now turned into a film – foresaw the decade’s decline

Tim Black

Tim Black
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To Sam Mendes, the director of the ’burb-baiting American Beauty, Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, a tale of marital drear and loathing set in a 1950s Connecticut suburb, provides the perfect opportunity to develop his vision of the American Dream gone awry. All the staples of the countercultural nightmare are in place. Lawns are zealously clipped, cakes are dutifully baked, cars are ruthlessly cleaned. We can be in no doubt: this is suburbia; this is America; this is depressing. Behind the sterile façade of the smiling family photos and panel board houses, there are lives of none-too-quiet desperation.

This, the novel’s world, faithfully recreated by Mendes, breathes in the culturally dissatisfied air of the time. The values of the newly affluent society, such as they were, did not want for disenchanted seers, from the fakes and phonies of Catcher in the Rye (1951) to the terror of consumerist conformity in The Lonely Crowd (1950). New Deal thinking and postwar growth may have delivered washing machines and cars on a mass scale, but they did not provide meaning. In its stead, it offered only adverts, dreams of consumption, parodies of projected happiness. To be was to buy. For men, aspiration was limited to the material rewards of their unfulfilling job; for women it was limited to maintaining their husband’s status. Conformity reigned over the individual; the inauthentic mass over the authentic self; falsehood over truth.

Such is the cultural grist of Revolutionary Road. In Mendes’ hands, however, what emerges is a sometimes moving, always interesting exploration of lives stymied, of selves unrealised. Its central characters, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), are different, you see. They are not duped by the marketers, they are not seduced by the suburban simulation of the good life. They are brilliant people, with brilliant lives to come. She an actress, and him, well, something amazing. Whatever, their mutual uniqueness will out.

Or at least that’s what they believed when they first met. But, as we see during the opening sequence, when you’re about to turn 30 such conviction becomes difficult to sustain. Wincing during his wife’s performance in a local theatre production, Frank tells her afterwards: ‘Well, that was hardly a triumph was it?’ A life of outward conformity was just about bearable given the knowledge of one’s inward brilliance. But realising one’s mediocrity, one’s unexceptionality, is shattering. They row. Autonomy lies at the heart of the clashes: in him she sees the defeat of hers, in her he sees a reminder of his. As she will later shout at him: ‘It takes backbone to lead the life you want, Frank.’

The grinding, quotidian reality is artfully drawn. Frank works for the same business-machines company that his father worked for, while April stays at home. He heads off each day at 8.20am, catching a train full of near-identical men in hats, each perusing the newspaper before being subsumed by their respective companies, organisation men to a tee; April remains at their house on Revolutionary Road, tidying, cooking, and laundering before being subsumed by the area’s enforced sisterhood, duty-bound wives to the last. The Wheelers experience their life as little more than roles to be played out in front of those who are too conventional, too bien pensant, to realise the fatuousness of their lives.

Mendes’ portrait of this cloying, oppressive existence is well-honed. Shot with an acute eye for composition, the visual formality mirrors the social rigidity of the existence depicted. It’s a vision that pathologises everyday life; discontent seethes beneath the surface, erupting at points before being stifled, even at the film’s tragic climax. Social existence resists self-realisation. It simply prescribes roles to be performed, acts to be faithlessly played out. Husband, wife; office worker, homemaker; man, woman. Even Frank’s affair with a young secretary from his workplace is more a wilting submission than a vital impulsion. ‘That was swell’, he says, wanly, as part of his post-coital chatter.

In Revolutionary Road, Social Being imprisons; even the most intimate bonds appear as chains, fetters on the withered self. Humanity is twisted, thrown out of joint. The performances of Winslet and DiCaprio are crucial in this regard. Matching the amplified artifice of Mendes’ directorial vision, they convey an essential isolation, a cleavage between the roles they play and their lonely, inner lives. Winslet’s portrayal of April Wheeler, all thwarted longing and imminent breakdown, has been much praised, but DiCaprio’s Frank is perhaps even better. He captures the character’s vanity, delivering smarmy, ingratiating speech, through a rictus grin. But, in the moments before his face sets itself into a smile, in the hesitant lurches into conversation, he expresses something else, too: a doubt, a gap between the life he is leading, or sinking all too comfortably into, and a sense that something is not quite right, that it is a life not lived.

The film’s narrative hinges on a decision that might just free them from their entrapment. That is, whether or not to move to Paris. April would work, Frank would find himself. Together they would finally be able to emancipate their talents. But Paris here represents something more than simply the city. It is the call of the old world, of Europe, an imaginary space of profound feeling, of deep sentiment, a culture informed by values other than those of commerce.

Mendes’ earlier film American Beauty also painted a dispiriting picture of the American dream grown rank. But its recourse was not to a hopelessly fetishised Paris; it was to values uncritically countercultural. It was tuning in and dropping out, dope smoke and insipid Romanticism. Revolutionary Road offers no such easy consolation.

Speaking uncomfortable truths at the story’s heart is John Givings, a brilliant mathematician recently interned at an asylum. His lunacy poses as the wisdom of an insane society. The elevation of the madman as sage was a common 1960s trope, but it has its antecedents, from Sancho Panza to Shakespearean fools. But Givings has, strangely, more in common with the Wildean dandy, the figure whose relentlessly ironising commentary rests upon his social uselessness, a leisured, aristocratic relic of an earlier social structure. Like Lord Darlington or Lord Henry Wooton, Givings’ has also been left behind. With a mind too great for such narrow times, his social obsolescence puts him at odds with life. In conversation with the Wheelers, he praises Frank’s candour: ‘Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.’

Written on the threshold of the 1960s, Revolutionary Road heralds that era’s decline. The ideologies of self-development and personal fulfilment appear here as false hope, illusions that refuse to console. Poised between nothing and something, between nihilism and suburbia, Revolutionary Road brooks no reconciliation.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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